Six months after NBC launched the most expensive new soap opera ever to decent reviews and low ratings, ABC is coming forward with its own new daytime drama, a spinoff of "General Hospital" called "Port Charles."
Set in the fictional port town of "General Hospital," the new half-hour show follows the romantic lives of three popular characters--Lucy (Lynn Herring), Kevin (Jon Lindstrom) and the newly returned Scotty (Kin Shriner)--and brings in several new characters in the form of young interns at the hospital.
The program premieres with a two-hour prime-time special on Sunday; daily broadcasts begin Monday at 11 a.m.
Like most recent fiddlings with soap formats, the veiled intent of "Port Charles"--beyond expanding the network's dramatic franchise--is to reach out to younger viewers. With their jobs and busy school schedules, young viewers are the hardest group to attract to daytime soaps--but they're also the genre's only hope for survival.
In the past, daytime viewing was generational: Young viewers--mostly women--watched what their mothers and grandmothers watched. But today's teens come home to houses with more than one TV set, so they're not limited to sitting down with Mom and watching the soaps with her. Add to that cable and VCRs, and the networks have found themselves with a generation or more of the coveted female audience that is basically not in the soap habit.
"It was easier when they went home, and one show was the only one to watch," said Angela Shapiro, executive vice president for marketing and promotions at ABC.
But once a new audience is hooked, they can keep a show going for years, even decades. "General Hospital" has been on the air for 32 years; CBS' "Guiding Light" has aired for 45 years on TV and 15 previously on radio. For the networks, passing the torch to a new generation of soap opera watchers could mean the survival of a lucrative programming form that they are uniquely able to produce and distribute.
To that end, the networks have been experimenting with a variety of approaches. In 1995, ABC launched "The City," a reworking of "Loving" that borrowed freely from prime time in its style and feel; low ratings brought about its demise last year. And NBC hired prime-time soap king Aaron Spelling to develop "Sunset Beach," which began airing in January.
That show, despite a coterie of loyal fans and praise in the soap opera press, is drawing between a 1.2 and 1.3 rating among women aged 18 to 49, the coveted daytime demographic, making it the lowest-rated soap on the air. Those figures, though, while low, are actually what network researchers predicted for the first year.
Susan Lee, senior vice president for daytime programming at NBC, said the ratings indicate just how long it takes to build an audience for a new soap.
"Being the new kid on the block, this is the price you pay," Lee said in an interview. "Particularly when you are not a spinoff."
What NBC has done, Lee said, is listen to focus groups of audience members who said they wanted the show to be less like a prime-time program and more like a traditional daytime soap.
To this end, NBC has added more family stories, eliminated the so-called "film look" in favor of plain old videotape and slowed down the pacing.
Still, rumors abound of the show's demise, and as recently as Wednesday a top producer phoned Lee to ask about the drama's future. She reaffirmed the network's two-year commitment to the series and Spelling.
Stung by the failure of "The City" and nervous about the low initial ratings for "Sunset Beach," producers at ABC were cautious in developing "Port Charles." They wanted to attract younger viewers without alienating the core soap opera audience of mostly older viewers.
So the new venture was intentionally set up as a spinoff of a popular show, in order to attract viewers who already like "General Hospital." It was shot on video, not film, so it retains the look of a traditional soap opera.
And while the series is chock-full of young characters--one reviewer said it looked as if the cast of "Beverly Hills, 90210" had all graduated and become doctors--older characters were also brought along.
The lesson of "The City" and "Sunset Beach," said Wendy Riche, executive producer of both "General Hospital" and "Port Charles," is that you can't reach out to young audiences simply by packing the show full of youthful faces and speeding up the pace to be more like prime time.
"When you force young people on an audience, they can smell it," Riche said.
The network is experimenting with teasers at the end of each episode to entice viewers to watch the next day, and will begin each program with a synopsis of the events of the day before. This, said Shapiro, is meant to satisfy viewers whose busy schedules keep them from tuning in every day.
Faced with limitations in changing the format, however, the network has turned to promotion as a primary way to recruit young viewers.
ABC has been extremely aggressive in marketing "Port Charles" to the audience it wants to attract. The network has purchased advertising on Channel One, the TV channel shown in many schools, and has contracted with an advertising and promotional agency to put "Port Charles" posters in school gymnasiums and locker rooms.
The program will also be promoted through satellite feeds to college campuses, a tactic the network recently tried with "General Hospital."
"We'll be doing a lot of radio aimed at teenagers for the summer," said Shapiro, the ABC marketing chief. "And we're looking at cross-promotional opportunities for September and October that will take us into the schools."
"It's not '90210,' " she said. "It's not aimed at young teenagers. But if it's a good story, the teenagers are going to come."
* "Port Charles" premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday and thereafter will be seen weekdays at 11 a.m. on ABC (Channel 7).